The sentence passed on an offender is entirely a matter for the courts subject to the maximum penalty enacted by Parliament for each offence. The Government ensures that the courts have available an adequate range of sentences to suit the circumstances of each case and that they are well informed about the purpose and nature of each available sentence. The Court of Appeal issues guidance to the lower courts on sentencing issues when points of principle have arisen on individual cases which are the subject of appeal.
The Government believes that custody should be a sanction of last resort used only when the gravity of the offence means that there is a positive justification for a custodial sentence, or where the public needs to be protected from a dangerous offender. The Court of Appeal has stated that sentencers in England and Wales should examine each case in which custody is necessary to ensure that the term imposed is as short as possible, consistent with the courts' duty to protect the interests of the public and to punish and deter the criminal. A magistrates' court in England and Wales cannot impose a term of more than six months' imprisonment for each offence tried summarily, but may impose consecutive sentences subject to an overall maximum of 12 months' imprisonment. If an offence carries a higher maximum penalty, it may commit the defendant for sentence at the Crown Court, which may impose - within the permitted statutory maximum - any other custodial penalty. As in the rest of Britain there is a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder: this is also the maximum penalty for a number of serious offences such as robbery, rape, arson and manslaughter.
The death penalty has been repealed for almost all offences. It remains on the statute book for the offences of treason, piracy with violence and some other treasonable and mutinous offences; it has, however, not been used for any of these offences since 1946.
In Scotland the maximum penalty is determined by the status of the court trying the accused unless the sentence is limited by statute. In trials on indictment, the High Court may impose a sentence of imprisonment for any term up to life, and the sheriff court - any term up to three years but may send any person to the High Court for sentence if the court considers its powers are insufficient. In summary cases, the sheriff may normally impose up to three months' imprisonment or six months for some repeated offences, although his powers are extended by statute in some exceptional cases. In the district court the maximum term of imprisonment is 60 days.
In Northern Ireland the position is generally the same as for England and Wales. A magistrates' court, however, cannot commit an offender for sentencing at the Crown Court if it has tried the case; for certain summary offences, a magistrates' court may impose a term of imprisonment for up to 12 months. There are also other circumstances when a magistrates' court can impose imprisonment of more than six months.
The most common sentence is a fine, which is imposed in more than 80 per cent of cases. There is no limit to the fine which may be imposed on indictment; on summary conviction the maximum limit, except in certain exceptional circumstances, is £2,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in Scotland £2 000 in the sheriff court and £ 1,000 in the district court.